Edward Asner Brings FDR to Life at Auditorium

One of the most decorated actors in television history is completing a Door County connection that began five decades ago with an invitation.

Edward Asner’s 50-year career has brought him Emmys (seven, and 16 total nominations) Golden Globes (5) and more credits than he can recall. He starred in the Mary Tyler Moore Show and Lou Grant, and has appeared in some of the greatest shows in television history, including Roots, X-Files, ER, Curb Your Enthusiasm, and The Simpsons. And last year he provided the voice for curmudgeonly Carl Fredricksen in Pixar’s UP, an animated box-office bonanza.

But when Asner talked about coming to Door County this month to perform a one-man show about former president Franklin Delano Roosevelt, he began the conversation talking about the man who first reached his hand out to him a half century ago in Chicago.

“Paul Sills, one of my best friends in life, used to tell me about Door County,” Asner said. Sills died last year at age 80, having spent his later years in Baileys Harbor after an influential career as the father of improvisation that included the founding of Second City and a Tony Award nomination.

The two young actors met at the University of Chicago in the late 1940s. Just before Asner completed an Army stint he received an unexpected letter from Sills.

“He asked me to come to Chicago,” Asner explained from Los Angeles in an early September phone interview. “‘We’ll do plays for 50, 60 bucks a week,’ he told me. Well, the 50 bucks a week proved hard to come by, but my life kind of fell into place then.”

Most of the actors actually lived in the theater, which they named The Playwrights Theater Club, and Asner got the nudge he needed.

“Paul was a wonderful guide and mentor,” Asner said, “who worked his [butt] off. I’ve often said, when they create the Pantheon of Theater Gods, if Paul Sills isn’t Zeus it’s a crime.”

Asner had his foot in the door as an actor, but he was also getting his footing fighting the man. The theater was designed as a club to “avoid city oppression,” he said. By having club memberships instead of selling tickets, they could skirt around city taxes. It didn’t last, and eventually the “club” was shut down.

But Asner would never shy away from speaking out, especially about human rights abuses, the environment, and labor issues, at times to the detriment of his career. Best-known for playing the gruff but softhearted journalist Lou Grant on the Mary Tyler Moore Show in the 1970s, Asner turned the comedic role dramatic when the character was spun off into his own hour-long drama from 1977 – 1982.

The award-winning show was still popular when it was cancelled, and Asner believes it was axed because of his much-publicized criticism of United States involvement in Central America.

“Speaking out is a foolhardy thing,” he said. “You’re certainly going to alienate a portion of the audience by speaking your mind.”

But he can’t help it. He claims it cost him a chance at some roles, but a look at his resume at Internet Movie Data Base ( shows that he found plenty of work to keep busy. He has over 250 credits to his name, not including theater, to which he returns Sept. 25 in FDR in a one-man production at the Door Community Auditorium.

Asner portrays one of the most fascinating and debated lives in American history. The play recaps the 32nd president’s life and decisions, from his battle with Polio, through the Depression, the build-up to World War II, and finally the war itself.

Though Asner said the play could be called a “puff piece” on Roosevelt, it also touches on the less glamorous sides of his character – his packing of the Supreme Court, his affair with Lucy Mercer, and his manipulation of Congress to enact a draft.

“What a titan he was,” Asner said, “with a titanic ego. But he was able to channel that ego into remarkable achievements.”

Asner was 15 when FDR died shortly before the end of World War II in 1944, and he recalled the shock he felt upon hearing the news.

“It felt like a father died,” he said. “I was well aware of the man and what he had done. The man was a God to me and my generation. I remember thinking, ‘What do we do now?’”

Today, he hopes the story of FDR provides a lesson in moving past politics and working for the greater good in a time when the country faces its greatest economic challenge since FDR was in office.

“FDR serves as a great example for all Presidents,” he said.

Ed Asner as FDR

Sept. 25, 8 pm


Door Community Auditorium